By Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Running out of money to fight wildfires at the peak of the season, the U.S. Forest Service is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap.
The nation’s top wildfire-fighting agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million so far this year, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said Wednesday in an email.
Chambers says the $50 million the Forest Service has left is typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday.
There are 51 large uncontained fires burning across the nation, making it tough to meet demands for fire crews and equipment.
Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell sent a letter Aug. 16 to regional foresters and other top officials telling them to come up with the cuts by Friday.
“I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public whom we serve and on our many valuable partners, as well as agency operations, target accomplishments and performance,” he wrote. “I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency.”
The step comes despite Congress creating a special wildfire reserve fund in 2009, known as the FLAME Act. Congress dedicated $413 million to the reserve in fiscal 2010, but cut it to $290 million in 2011 and raised it to $315 million in fiscal 2012, according to Forest Service documents. The current figure was not immediately available.
“The Forest Service, when it lobbied for the FLAME Act, said, ‘Look, if you give us this reserve fund for large fires, we won’t need to raid other parts of our budget,’” said Andy Stahl, director of the watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “The Forest Service instead used up the FLAME money and is now using other parts of its budget. That is giving the agency a blank check and it just keeps putting more zeros on it.”
The mandatory budget cutting measure known as sequestration reduced the Forest Service budget 5 percent, forcing cuts of 500 firefighters and 50 engines.
Wildfire spending by other federal agencies takes the total to $1.2 billion so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. That is more than half last year’s total of $1.9 billion, and fast-approaching the 10-year average of $1.4 billion. There have been 33,000 fires that have burned more than 5,300 square miles — an area nearly the size of Connecticut.